A new study claims Australians don’t see cyclists as fully human

A new study in Australia shows that half of the drivers don’t rate cyclists as humans—this includes cyclists themselves. This research follows up on previous studies that show drivers act more aggressively toward cyclists after dehumanizing them. Cycling accidents in the US account for nearly 3 percent of all deaths on the roads.
The first time I visited Amsterdam, I quickly learned the rules of the road. Freshly off a 23-hour train ride from Madrid—three seven-hour train rides and two short connecting shuttles, meaning no sleeping car for the duration—my friend and I stumbled down Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in a daze. Discerning any distinction between walking, cycling, driving, and trolley lanes proved difficult in such a state. I was awakened to this fact when an angry Nederlander put his shoulder down and checked me onto the “walking” sidewalk as he pedaled by. Welcome to that famous Dutch hospitality. In fact, for the rest of our trip, the hospitality was overwhelmingly positive. In retrospect, I can understand the biker’s frustration. Cyclists are perpetually engaged in an existential fight for their lives, figuratively and literally. As someone who has pedaled around Jersey City, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles over the course of my adult life, I know well the struggle cyclists face.

study claims Australians
When my editor assigned this new study from her Australian homeland, my initial reaction was to chuckle. So here’s the key bullet point for context: “A national Australian study has found more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not completely human.” But, unfortunately, the data are not that funny, even if the headline is. Conducted by researching 442 respondents in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, lead author Dr. Alexa Delbosc and her team at Monash University discovered that drivers were more likely to act aggressively toward them by dehumanizing cyclists. In fact, 10 percent of drivers admitted purposefully driving close to cyclists even though the law calls for a five-foot distance when passing them on the road.

Given the above graph to rate their feelings on cyclists, 55 percent of non-cyclists chose the life form to the left of humans. Thirty percent of cyclists did the same, which makes you question their skills in self-perception (or self-worth). Seventeen percent of drivers report blocking cyclists on purpose while 9 percent have cut off cyclists for—fun? Sport? Schadenfreude? Two other recent studies, also conducted in Australia, confirm these results. The first, published in the Journal of Safety Research, relied on self-reporting by 3,769 drivers in Queensland. Nearly half replied that they don’t care about the five-foot rule. Fortunately, a slightly higher percentage of drivers (4 percent more, to be exact) pay closer attention when the speed limit is higher.

The second study, Accident Analysis & Prevention, polled 308 drivers, coming to a simple conclusion: They think roads are built for cars alone. As the first commenter on the article notes, “I’m just happy when they don’t throw things at me,” a sentiment confirmed by my editor, who mentioned that living in New York City is a “dream” because she doesn’t have to see cheeseburgers chucked at cyclists anymore. These studies remind me of previous studies I’ve covered on texting and driving. Roads require unspoken social contracts, a fact many people don’t consider. You get a license; the road is yours. Many modern classrooms lack the fundamentals of civics and ethics; we need a class focused on driving ethics. Distracted driving results in over a thousand injuries or deaths every day in America, an astonishing number that could easily be avoided if drivers agreed to pay attention to the road. But they don’t.

This is why, in Los Angeles, I rarely cycle. In one two-week period, three friends of mine were hit. One, a professional violinist, could not play for over a year, given what happened to her shoulder. Another couldn’t work out properly for months due to his wrist injury. In good public safety news, the city of Los Angeles has made an effort to increase bike lanes, making it more commuter-friendly. In 2015, city officials signed onto the Vision Zero plan, launched in Sweden in 1997 to reduce pedestrian deaths. New York and San Francisco previously hopped aboard. The same year, 45,000 cyclists nationwide were injured (or killed) on the streets. Even though cyclists make up less than 1 percent of commuters, they account for nearly 3 percent of fatalities.

In the new study, A. Delbosc et al. write:

[T]his [research] suggests that one way to reduce aggression might involve humanizing cyclists rather than just encouraging positive attitudes. How that might be done is not obvious, but it raises several possibilities. For example, mandatory helmet laws in Australia mean that hair and faces are more obscured; this may be contributing to dehumanizing beliefs. Furthermore, the perception that cycling requires a ‘uniform’ of Lycra and fitness gear may be contributing to this feeling of cyclists as ‘others,’ as well as increasing barriers to participation (Daley & Rissel, 2011). Future research might test the effectiveness of promoting the idea that cyclists are diverse and similar to other road users or maybe even find creative ways to show their faces to drivers, so they are seen as persons, not darting mechanical obstacles.

Randy Montgomery

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